Humans are a strange lot. Our social customs can be so convoluted and bizarre that for those on the spectrum, trying to navigate them can be like trying to unravel a mating ball of snakes, or the wires behind your TV, if they had holes in their insulation and you were standing in a tub of dishwater.
One particular custom that a lot of us find very difficult is knowing when we are expected to lie.
In our society, people often ask questions not because they want an honest answer, but because they want to hear a specific response. Similarly, people often make statements for the sole purpose of being contradicted. “Am I ugly?” “That speech I gave today was so terrible.” “I look dreadful tonight.” “Did I mess that up?” “I’m such an idiot.”
Very often, we spectrum folk don’t realize we’re supposed to lie, and respond with a brutal honesty that can get us into trouble. It’s not that we’re being intentionally hurtful, but rather that we’re misinterpreting “Does my bum look big in this?” as a genuine request for feedback. It may not even occur to us that what’s really being asked for is reassurance.
Now, if you’re not on the spectrum, these kind of ‘white lies’ may seem so obvious and natural that it may be hard to imagine how they could be so confusing. Try to think of it this way; in some countries, the ‘thumbs up’ gesture is considered extremely rude, equivalent to a middle finger. If you live in one of these countries, you would know this instinctively, but if you come from a country like Australia where it’s a positive gesture, you may not realize this, and have no idea why you’ve caused offense. Many of us on the spectrum perceive social protocol through a similar lens; it’s like a foreign culture to us.
If you’re on the spectrum and want to err on the side of caution, a general rule is that if somebody makes a negative comment about themselves, they want to be contradicted, and if they ask for an opinion about themselves, they don’t want negative response.
Honesty, it turns out, isn’t always the best policy. Openness, on the other hand, can go a long way. In time, those of us on the spectrum can learn the nuances of social protocol, just as a person might learn a second language, or the customs of another culture. It takes time and practice, but it can be done. In the meantime, I’ve found that being open about the fact that I’m on the spectrum and find social skills challenging has helped to defuse many a misunderstanding.